Climate changes the role of Australian police in the Pacific
Australian Federal Police working with Vanuatu Police Force

Written by

Anthony Bergin

The Defence Strategic Review points out that if climate change accelerates over coming decades it has the potential to significantly increase risk in our region. As affirmed by the 2018 Boe Declaration, climate change “remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”. Climate change has dominated the agenda of the Pacific Island countries for nearly two decades. Those countries include some of the states that are most vulnerable, including through sea level rise and severe weather events.

There’s a range of bodies in the region that deal with climate change. These include the Pacific Islands Forum, (the Secretariat hosts the Office of the Pacific Oceans Commissioner where there’s a strong interest in the oceans/climate nexus), the South Pacific Regional Environment Program, (hosting a Pacific Climate Change Centre), the University of the South Pacific’s Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development and the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network, (civil society groups in the region active in climate diplomacy).

The issue of climate change in the Pacific too often leaves out the role and importance of law enforcement. Climate change will be a growing challenge for relatively small Pacific Island police organisations. Tuvalu, for example, only has 100 officers. Indeed, there doesn’t appear to be a strong sense of urgency about enhancing the role of Australian policing when it comes to the impacts of climate change in our neighbourhood.

Climate change could be expected to impact on policing needs of Pacific Island countries in several ways, including greater and more frequent deployments in response to natural disasters, where police often play a central role. There’s likely to be increases in rates of crime that might arise in a variety of ways (many of them perhaps not yet anticipated, such as “survival crimes” caused by loss of livelihoods), including economic and social disruption/dislocation. These disruptions could in some circumstances escalate to civil unrest.

There’ll be increased policing needs arising from climate change regulation. The Pacific Island countries have recognised a need for domestic regulation as part of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. This includes such things as carbon sequestration schemes and measures to protect coastal zones.

Increased climate-related regulation will inevitably place an added burden on law enforcement. Although environmental agencies will play an important role in climate change regulation, police have become increasingly involved in climate change regulatory enforcement whether in mitigation of fraud, carbon trading, social opposition to polluting industries or restrictive land use measures.

The Australian Federal Police is likely to play a key role in helping to manage climate change related instability in the Pacific, especially in disaster management. Fortunately, the AFP recently added a fourth deputy commissioner with a renewed focus on the Pacific (in particular, targeting criminals using the Pacific as a maritime drug highway to Australia).And the most recent federal budget included an increase to AFP partnerships in the Pacific to strengthen local law enforcement and criminal justice cooperation.

To better prepare our law enforcement agencies for greater demands for Australian policing assistance to Pacific Island countries arising from climate change we need a baseline study of the likely impact of climate change on their policing requirements and a review of the current state of Pacific Islands’ enforcement capacity to meet these demands.

That should provide the AFP a better understanding of climate change and its implications for its role in the Pacific, especially what’s needed in terms of interagency cooperation and policing capacity building with island countries. It should also include an assessment of what climate change means for future Australian police force regional deployments. A baseline study might inform an AFP-led training program aimed at increasing awareness of climate change risks across the Pacific law enforcement community.

Such a baseline study would also inform Australian efforts to enhance island policing capabilities to investigate environmental and other crimes that may be associated with a rapidly changing climate such as illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, logging, trade of wildlife, crimes involving the disposal of waste, illegal development of land, and other activities directly harming the environment.(Outside climate change, seabed mining in the Pacific is also likely to create opportunities for criminal exploitation.) The 2021-22 Pacific Transnational Crime Assessment recently highlighted an increase in environmental crimes throughout the region.

The bottom line is that climate change will result in not just induced population displacements but will potentially change crime in the region. Our law enforcement community should expand its partnerships in this critical area of mutual concern and regional security.

This is an expanded version of an article that first appeared in The Australian 4 May 2023. Image from AFP.